A world without bosses

Can your organization work without bosses? In the documentary, Ban the Boss (one hour BBC video) Paul Thomas shows that most organizations can run just fine without bosses, or at least without traditional, hierarchical bosses who tell workers what to do.

Gwynn Dyer explained that historically, hierarchies were the result of a communications problem, in Why the Arabs can handle democracy.

A mass society, thousands, then millions strong, confers immense advantages on its members. Within a few thousand years, the little hunting-and-gathering groups were pushed out of the good lands everywhere. By the time the first anthropologists appeared to study them, they were on their last legs, and none now survive in their original form. But we know why the societies that replaced them were all tyrannies.

The mass societies had many more decisions to make, and no way of making them in the old, egalitarian way. Their huge numbers made any attempt at discussing the question as equals impossible, so the only ones that survived and flourished were the ones that became brutal hierarchies. Tyranny was the solution to what was essentially a communications problem.

We have been able to communicate with each other better and better for the past half century, and now with mobile communications we need even fewer intermediaries to get work done. Many bosses don’t have a clue what is actually happening at the front-end, as is clear in the BBC documentary, and as I wrote in network walking.

Bob Marshall alerted me, via Twitter, to this documentary that shows just how difficult it can be to change attitudes and beliefs about work. In this case, the obvious place to start a boss-purge was at the vehicle service bay, with nine skilled mechanics “supported by” eight managers. The workers wound up keeping one manager, but on their terms. Other departments were more difficult.

Could you imagine if workers were allowed to vote their bosses in and out? Well they can now in Blaenau Gwent, Wales; as they have been able to do at Semco SA for decades. Listen to Ricardo Semler explain how Semco organizes work and “staff determine when they need a leader, and then choose their own bosses in a process akin to courtship”.

Yes, there is a different, and better, way to get work done, with fewer managers. If all you have are general management and supervision skills, your work days may be numbered.

14 Responses to “A world without bosses”

  1. Glenn | Impact Solutions

    Self-organizing systems are all around us and are very successful at adaptation — including our own bodies, and the Internet as a whole. I can see many more self-organizing organizations emerging in the next decade, but I suspect the idea is a bit too (currently) foreign for most companies to adopt. I suspect the pressure for companies to adopt this structurally democratic mentality will be the successful organizations that employ a self-organized workforce — like the Google’s and Apple’s of the next decade pressuring the older IBM’s to evolve. We shall see! Thanks for the coverage of Ricardo Semler!

  2. Peter Stannack

    Mmmm. As a semi unreformed anarcho-syndicalist, I like it. I also agree about autopoeisis. BUT in every context? And what about origination?

  3. Paul Angileri

    This is an interesting post, because I have worked for corporations big and small, from hundreds of employees to tens of thousands. Oddly enough it was the massive global example where the hierarchies were less overtly directive in their behavior, compared to the smaller (which was a start-up, and one that broke several of these rules). Now, I work for a very small company of less than 50 people, and there is a hierarchy, but it’s largely organic and fluid, and I’m not monitored on a daily basis. I know what needs to be done, and I handle it, and my colleagues are in the same position.

    If I did have one concern over this style though, it’s that everyone is a sort of master of their own domain, which we’re changing, but up until very recently has been the norm, which presents both challenges and opportunities when it comes to streamlining processes, tracking effort, etc.

    • Harold Jarche

      Thanks, Paul. My experience is that a key enabler of a boss-free system is that everyone narrates their work & shares it, so anyone can see what is going on.

  4. Ryan Tracey

    In a world without bosses, very little would get done.

    *How* the hierarchy is implemented is the key.

    (I like the idea of 10% formal direction.)

  5. Harold Jarche

    Unfortunately, most organizations are ~50% formal direction / hierarchy. Reducing existing formal structure by 80% is a major hurdle.

  6. Jon Husband

    Wirearchy or network architecture is not the absence of hierarchy, its the absence of static hierarchy

    Exactly so … temporary hierarchies based increasingly on purpose, context, skills, knowledge and accountabilities

  7. Mark Roest

    Jon’s description is back to the future! This is how the most adaptable hunter-gatherer group might operate.

    Mark

  8. Mark Roest

    The key issue to actually getting there is that lots of people are psychologically dependent on being the boss, and lots of other people have bought into hierarchy with a belief that bosses are necessary for performance. This is part of our heritage from our common ancestor with the chimpanzees; it is what ‘civilizing’ and the mystic path are designed to manage. Religion is, too, but usually gets taken over by people whose will is to be boss of that domain. Politics typically is chimp-level in its power dynamics, but can be New England town meeting, Society of Friends (Quaker) consensus process, Occupy leaderless organization, and, Civil Rights movement through today, mass gatherings of hundreds of thousands of people with a will for the partnership paradigm. And it can be us, creating a framework for local understanding, policy-framing, sustainable economy design and development, and healing, with systematic communication with other places, and aggregation of policies, needs and opportunities into larger geographical and contextual places, up to global scale. This affords both unity and diversity, in the ways that are needed to support life, and enable both humanity and all our (remaining) relations to thrive.

  9. Martin King

    Of course not all managers are the same and not all work roles are the same.

    Some managers manage and sustain the bureaucracy while others are more like facilitators and more hands on.

    The hierarchical elitist role of management may transform with greater communications democracy and become flattened and absorbed within an organisation.

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